Gate Theatre reopens: ‘There’s a lovely sense of hysteria’

Audience returns for first time since March 12th, 2020, to attend Once Before I Go

Tonie Walsh arrives at the Gate Theatre in style; in bright yellow and blue sequins, specifically.

The veteran gay activist points to the man in the eye-catching poster for Phillip McMahon’s Once Before I Go, which is opening on Friday night.

“That’s my ex, Tim Pitt, at a Halloween ball in Flickers in 1987. I did his makeup. He’s wearing my sister Louise’s earrings, and he’s b*llock naked except for bubblewrap that’s supposed to be ice in G&T.”

There’s a heady buzz and a mix of generations of activists and theatre people present with pride for the premiere.

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President Michael D Higgins has turned up at the door of the Gate, and now we know that live performance is getting back to normal.

It’s Friday night, Dublin Theatre Festival (DTF) 2021 is finally up and running, and the Gate is welcoming patrons back for the first time since it shut abruptly on March 12th, 2020.

Covid certs are checked before going inside.

Cabaret tables

There’s minimal mingling before ticket-holders sit down in the transformed auditorium, with cabaret tables in front of the stageand Francis O’Connor’s set.

The world premiere of Once Before I Go has involved “a fabulous company of actors, technicians, designers and producers to bring this epic tale of LGBTQ+ lives and rights to life”, says McMahon. “Fittingly, the entire backstage team have come together as a family to create this show, and that familial welcome is extended to the audience every night. We are back in the theatre, all of us, together.”

It’s a celebration, too, of DTF, after months of planning through Covid. With such a large programme, DTF artistic director Willie White says the team was “understandably nervous that we’d be to be able to present when the time came”.

Gate artistic director Selina Cartmell, about to open the play she’s directed, says she is “so proud of the incredible Gate staff and the whole Once Before I Go company tonight”, reopening “for audiences to experience the magic of live performance after so long”.

‘Creative tension’

Queuing up outside, Ark director Aideen Howard, with her daughter Sally, is delighted to see “one theatre opening up after another. There’s a lovely sense of hysteria and great excitement about.”

Eugene Downes, cultural director at the Department of Foreign Affairs feels “anticipation, nervousness. Excitement for Philly. This is a story that probably hasn’t been told on stage, but Hilton and Micheál trod the path 92 years ago, so there’s a creative tension tonight.” Micheál Mac Liammóir and Hilton Edwards founded the Gate.

Senator Fintan Warfield is there with Stephen Quinn. Deirdre O’Kane is “delighted to get to theatre, after nearly two years”. Declan Buckley, aka Shirley Templebar, is there with his husband Andrew Hetherington from Business to Arts.

“When you’ve been around as long as I have, this play is a double-edged sword: it makes you feel proud, and makes you feel moved. But it also makes you feel old,” Buckley says.

Fashion designer Peter O’Brien “had to be dragged screaming out of lockdown”, having loved the womb-like safety, but is delighted to be back at theatre.

Meanwhile backstage, actor Sean Campion, waiting to go on, is “feeling pure joy and deep gratitude tonight. With Philly’s wonderful play, combining comedy, tragedy and a delicious dusting of razzle dazzle , I am so excited to welcome our audiences to join us. Would love to think The Boys [Micheál Mac Liammóir and Hilton Edwards] are looking down on us, giving us a thumbs-up and saying ‘Onwards and onwards, we’re back!’”